Butler: Knocking on Heaven's Door

KNOCKING ON HEAVEN'S DOOR: THE PATH TO A BETTER WAY OF DEATH

Katy Butler
Scribner, September 2013, $25
ISBN: 978-1451641974

Katy Butler

Butler reports:

I didn't find the idea for my book. It fell into my life like a ton of bricks.

My father suffered a crippling stroke at 79. My mother became his full-time caregiver, and I joined 24 million Americans helping shepherd their parents through final declines.

Next, without forethought or family discussion, doctors gave my father a pacemaker which forestalled natural death without stopping his slide into dementia and helplessness. When he no longer recognized a dinner napkin, we asked to have the pacemaker turned off. Doctors refused. His lingering death took six years, and broke my mother’s health.

I sensed that this was not just about my family, and I was right. Distress over how we die is culturally rampant. Three quarters of us want to die at home, but fewer than a quarter do. Medicare spends a quarter of its $550 billion budget on treatment in the last year of life. I wrote a "most-emailed" NYT Magazine story that zigzagged between my parents’ stories and the economic and systemic issues that blocked their ways to the “good deaths” they desired.

The piece won a 2011 Science in Society prize from NASW, and opened the door to a high-powered "tough love" New York literary agent, Amanda “Binky” Urban, who told me the first draft of my book proposal was "plodding." The fixed proposal netted a substantial preemptive offer from Whitney Frick and legendary editor Nan Graham at Scribner (Simon & Schuster). The book, a braid of memoir and investigative reporting, took two years and three drafts to complete.

I tried to keep in mind the three elements of successful articles and books: 1) a good story. 2) a trend. 3) a reflection on the eternal human condition. The narrative spine is our family story, a blended “Quest” and “Overcoming the Monster” narrative that culminates with my mother rebelling against her doctors, refusing open heart surgery, and meeting her death like a warrior, head-on. I covered the trend element by recounting the rise of lifesaving technology and the medical device industry, and how they changed how we die. Finally, trying to avoid death is an immortal human story. Think Faust.

Contact info:


Deadline for October 2013 book blog: September 25, 2013

See submission guidelines.

Send your book description, author photo, and book cover image to Lynne Lamberg, NASW book editor, llamberg@nasw.org.

Sep. 11, 2013

Advance Copy

The path from idea to book may take myriad routes. The Advance Copy column, started in 2000 by NASW volunteer book editor Lynne Lamberg, features NASW authors telling the stories behind their books. Authors are asked to report how they got their idea, honed it into a proposal, found an agent and a publisher, funded and conducted their research, and organized their writing process. They also are asked to share what they wish they’d known when they started or would do differently next time, and what advice they can offer aspiring authors. Lamberg edits the authors’ answers to produce the Advance Copy reports.

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